Jan 25, 2000 - Apr 22, 2000

The Corset: Fashioning the Body

The Museum at FIT

The Museum at FIT

The Corset: Fashioning the Body
The corset is one of the most controversial items of clothing in the history of fashion. Worn by women throughout the western world from the late Renaissance into the 20th century, the corset was an essential element of fashionable dress. Dress reformers argued that women's bodies were "deformed" by fashion; and most people today perceive the corset as having been an instrument of women's oppression.

The shape and construction of the corset changed over time. 18th-century stays created a cone-shaped silhouette. By the 1790s, the new fashion for high-waisted dresses led some women to adopt shorter stays, resembling proto-brassieres.

There do exist in museum collections certain notorious iron corsets, which are usually dated to about 1580 to 1600. But were they really the first fashionable corsets? Modern scholars tend to believe these metal corsets were orthopedic devices.

Europe, supposedly c. 1580-1600 (but probably late 19th or early 20th century forgery).

During the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors blamed the corset for dozens of diseases, including cancer, hysteria, "tight-lacing liver," tuberculosis and scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Most of these diagnoses are unsupported by the evidence.

Women wore corsets for almost 400 years, because comfort was judged less important than social status, feminine beauty, and respectability. The corset was a status symbol, because it constrained the wearer's physical mobility, thus supposedly demonstrating that she could afford servants. Thorstein Veblen was incorrect, however, in arguing that corsets prevented women from working. First associated with aristocrats, the corset retained its prestige value even after working-class women adopted cheap ready-made corsets.

Contrary to popular belief, most Victorian women did not have 16-inch waists. Corsets were usually advertised with waists of 18 to 32 inches when laced completely closed, but they were often left open an inch or two.

Not only did the corset support the bosom and idealize the figure, its status as underwear implicitly alluded to the act of undressing and making love. Paradoxically, the corset was also a sign of respectability, because it controlled the body and, by extension, the physical passions. A strait-laced woman was not loose.

By emphasizing the sexually dimorphic curves of a woman's body, the corset functioned as a symbol of female beauty. Women with slender waists look younger and more feminine, because the waist-hip differential in young women tends to be 0.7 (waist seven-tenths as large as hips), in contrast to men's ratio of 0.85 or 0.9. After menopause, as fertility and estrogen levels decline, women's bodies approach the male ratio.

With the fashion revolution of the early 20th century, most women stopped wearing boned corsets and adopted elasticized foundation garments. Why did women abandon corsets? Historical evidence suggests that changes in fashion were directly associated with changing attitudes toward the body. The corset did not so much disappear as become transformed. First it evolved into the girdle and brassiere. Then, more radically, the corset became internalized through diet, exercise, and now also plastic surgery. The hard body replaced the boned corset.

The Late 20th Century
In the late 20th century, street styles such as punk and the new romanticism brought the corset back into fashion—as outerwear. The reappearance of the corset reveals how the meaning of clothing is constantly being redefined. The corset certainly no longer signifies "respectability." It has, instead, a range of meanings, from the seductively feminine to the fierce femme fatale.

In the wake of the sexual liberation movement, young women associated with London's punk and goth subcultures in the early 1970s began to reappropriate the corset as a symbol of rebellion. Corsets were also increasingly adopted by young men who wore the garment to clubs that welcomed the expression of "radical" or "transgressive" sexuality.

JEAN-PAUL GAULTIER CORSETS

Long disparaged as a symbol of female oppression, the corset was reconceived as a symbol of female sexual empowerment by Madonna, aided and abetted by Jean Paul Gaultier.

Left: Rayon, elastic net, velvet trim, metal boning
France
1990

Right: Metallic coated warp knit, elastic, metal
France
1990

Adopted by avant-garde fashion designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, herself a punk in the late 1970s, the corset began a second life in fashion.

Vivienne Westwood's revival of the corset may be one of her most important contributions to 20th century fashion. Many other designers have also been inspired by the corset, and it seemed to come back into fashion every two or three years — 1992, 1994, 1997, 2000, and 2001. 

Most designers tend to focus on very feminine or beautiful corsets, but there are also a variety of "exotic" corsets. The Dinka "corset" from East Africa (center) was the inspiration for this Dior gown.

Another type of contemporary corset treats the body not as an idealized female form, or a surrogate for the hard body, but rather as something deeply vulnerable, even wounded.

Especially within the world of fashion, cultural signs, like the corset, have no fixed meaning. Throughout human history, people in all cultures have demonstrated an urge to "dress" or "fashion" their bodies in ways that respond to particular sociocultural ideals of beauty, eroticism, status, conformity, and other powerful forces. As we move through the 21st century, the corset shows no signs of disappearing.

Credits: Story

Curators: Valerie Steele and Fred Dennis
Exhibition Designer: Todd Zwigard

"The Corset: Fashioning the Body" was made possible by the generous support of DuPont LYCRA and LYCRA Soft. Additional generous support was provided by Warnaco Inc. and The Natori Company.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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